LONDON (AFP) – British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson faced calls to quit Tuesday over a “slip of the tongue” that Iran is now using to partly justify further charges against an Iranian-British national detained in Tehran.
Johnson told a parliamentary committee last week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists in Iran when she was arrested for alleged sedition last year — something her employer and her family insist is incorrect.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe appeared in court on Saturday to face further charges, brought in early October, that carry a 16-year jail term.
The Iranian judiciary issued an online article on Sunday saying that Johnson’s comments proved that she wasn’t on holiday, as claimed, backing the justification for new charges.
A Foreign Office spokesman said Johnson’s comments may have been “misrepresented” and provided “no justifiable basis” for additional charges.
Johnson was due to call Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Tuesday in a bid to defuse the situation.
Richard Ratcliffe, the detainee’s husband, told AFP that Johnson “made a factual error, and then it felt more ominous on Sunday when that factual error was being used to justify her detention.”
He said that Johnson’s phone call to his Iranian counterpart was “not good enough” and that he needed to officially correct the record to send a message to Iran’s judiciary.
“He made a statement in parliament that’s being manipulated; another statement in parliament is the natural way of clarifying that.”
He added that Saturday’s court appearance had left his wife “very stressed and upset”.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), the media organisation’s philanthropic arm, was arrested at Tehran airport on April 3, 2016 after visiting family.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards accused her of having taken part in the “sedition movement” of protests that followed the disputed 2009 re-election of then hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Zaghari-Ratcliffe denies the charges.
She is serving a five-year jail sentence in Tehran but last month was presented with extra charges carrying a possible 16-year prison term, her employers said.
TRF said those charges were that she had joined organisations specifically working to overthrow the regime, referring to her media charity work in London, and that she once attended a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in Britain’s capital.
– Pressure to quit –
Following Johnson’s comments, TRF chief executive Monique Villa urged him to “immediately correct the serious mistake”.
“She is not a journalist and has never trained journalists at the TRF where she is project manager,” Villa said in a statement.
“She was in Iran on holiday to show her daughter Gabriella to her grandparents.”
Emily Thornberry, foreign affairs spokeswoman for the main opposition Labour Party, wrote to Johnson urging him to quit if his actions have damaged Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s prospects of freedom.
“I hope and trust you will take full responsibility for that,” she said in a letter published by Politics Home.
Britain’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox told Sky News television that he did not believe Johnson had made “a serious gaffe”.
Fox said the situation was being used as an attempt to discredit Johnson without thinking of the possible consequences.
“The most important thing is to do what he’s doing today: to make very clear to his Iranian counterpart that this would not be any excuse for extending an illegal detention,” Fox also told BBC radio.
“We all make slips of the tongue. I think we’ve got to be very careful that we’re not over-reacting to this.
“He will determine with the Iranian foreign minister exactly the best way to ensure that she can be released.”